Building Positive Professional Relationships With Difficult People

Fact: You will have to work with a person you find difficult. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you will. Relationships play a vital role in how happy, productive, and fulfilled we are at work. Research shows that 60 to 80 percent of difficulties at work are due to strained relationships.

You can’t always choose the people you work with, but you can choose how you interact with them and how they affect you. Learning how to handle and even build relationships with difficult people is one of the best things you can do for your career.

Today’s post is an introduction to a three-part series, in which we’ll discuss how to build positive relationships with difficult people in different roles. Over the next several weeks, we’ll cover building positive relationships with difficult:

  1. Bosses
  2. Co-workers
  3. Clients

Before we get into the nuances of each type of relationship, let’s discuss ground rules for creating positive relationships with difficult people that apply to all three:

  1. Don’t People Please. You can’t please everyone, and you will exhaust yourself quickly if that’s your goal. Focus on understanding them, not on getting them to like you. People-pleasing is about you. Building relationships is about others. Be confident in who you are, and don’t change what you do or how you act to gain their approval.
  2. Empathize Before Defending. It’s natural to want to go on the defense when you feel like someone is attacking you, but it’s not an effective way to build a relationship. Take a moment to put yourself in their shoes and gain a deeper understanding of their issues. Just showing you genuinely care about why they’re upset can be enough to diffuse the situation and build trust.
  3. Show Respect. Many people’s combative behavior stems from feeling disrespected or not valued. There are multiple ways you can make a person feel respected and valued that don’t take much effort. Compliment them on their strengths or work product, ask them for advice, offer to help them with a project, and acknowledge their contribution to your projects.
  4. Manage Expectations. Not properly managing expectations can cause resentment and frustration. Set a time to discuss what you expect from each other. If you do mess up, be quick to accept responsibility and adjust expectations as needed.
  5. Don’t Carry Resentment. You can’t control how other people act, but you can control how you react to them. Wasting time holding a grudge against someone doesn’t punish anyone but yourself. You will be on the receiving end of a raw deal at some point in your career. Moving forward, without malice or resentment, will ensure you the best possible outcome.
  6. Create a Dialogue. If you sense tension with someone, invite them to lunch or coffee. Setting aside some time for open dialogue will communicate to them that they matter to you.  You can diffuse tension simply by taking an interest in what they’re working on and who they are. If the relationship is strained enough to affect your work, bring it up when you meet, and let them know, in a non-defensive way, you would like the relationship to change.

Occasionally, you might encounter an irrational or mentally unstable person, in which case it’s best to disengage. But for the most part, you’re going to be doing business with people you can and should build a relationship with, regardless of whether or not their communication style, priorities, or values differ from yours.

The ground rules above apply to building professional relationships with people in any role. In two weeks, we’ll discuss building positive relationships with different types of difficult bosses — one of the most essential relationships to manage well.

Never miss a minute

Get great content directly to your inbox. No spam.